The clumsy penguin becomes a gliding Olympic athlete in the ocean, thanks to glistening feathers that trap air bubbles, add buoyancy and reduce friction. Textiles and design student Sarah Ziem at the University of Reutlingen, Germany, worked with the Hohenstein Institute, Bönnigheim, Germany, to develop a swimsuit surface coating that gives competitive swimmers penguin-like agility from a similar cushion of microbubbles. “There are obvious benefits in flow behavior which are reflected in improved speed,” says Ziem, who first pool-tested the thin, lightweight swimsuit with its super-hydrophobic coating in December. “Perhaps the first swimmers will already be wearing [the suits] by the time of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.”
More than 100 swimming records were broken during and after the 2008 Olympics, many by athletes such as American Michael Phelps wearing high-tech swimsuits. In 2010, the international swimming federation, FINA, banned swimsuit designs that were deemed to provide an unfair advantage in competition. Qualifying suits must be thicker than one millimeter; made of material with limited buoyancy; and expose the neck, shoulders and ankles of the athlete. The “penguin” coating complies with these regulations, offering competitive swimmers an alternate strategy to break speed barriers. Another benefit to the water-resistant swimsuits: they remain dry, even after long training sessions in the pool.